While I don’t review all that I read, I’m way behind in writing reviews of books I planned to review. Here’s an attempt to catch up a bit on what I have been reading in the religious and theology realm.
Adam Neder, Theology as a Way of Life: On Teaching and Learning the Christian Faith
This is a small and somewhat simple book with profound insights into the teaching profession. While Neder is a professor, much of what he says in this book can be applicable to all levels of teaching (especially teaching the Christian faith). This book grew out a lecture the author gave at a Karl Barth symposium on Barth’s Evangelical Theology. Neder shifted focus from Barth’s thoughts on writing to teaching. In addition to Barth, he draws heavily on Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Soren Kierkegaard and the Scriptures. He also draws on his own experience in the classroom and acknowledges the lessons (sometimes hard lessons) he has learned.
Each chapter focuses on a different theme that together helps create a portrait of one who might teach Christian thought. The first theme is “identity.” Our identity must be bound in Christ, who reconciles us to God. Everyone, the teacher and student, must make a decision as to whether or not the accept Jesus Christ. Furthermore, the teacher needs to understand his or her inability to teach faith. That can only come from the Holy Spirit.
The second chapter examines “knowledge.” The author begins by noting that some of his best students of theology were not Christian. In an academic setting the teacher can only evaluate academic work. However, as the case was made in the first chapter, knowledge doesn’t save us. It’s our willingness to trust and follow Jesus. As Kierkegaard insisted, “the Christian life cannot be “reduced to thinking the right thoughts about God.” The teacher has to help the student develop his or her own thoughts about God, which is risky as the teacher cannot control the outcome. Neder also examines objections to such knowledge such as the idea that God is unknowable. While that it true we can’t know God with our own efforts, we must remember that Jesus reveals God to us.
The third area of exploration is ethos. Christian teachers need to be humble for we are witnessing to a larger truth. While Barth lays out such ideas in Evangelical Theology, Neder acknowledges that he, too, fell short. It’s easy for us to think higher of ourselves that we should. We need to be humble and to realize that we’re always teaching, not just when we are behind the podium. Can God’s truth be seen in our lives? How can we, as a teacher, remain connected to the truth? Can we become less so that someone else become greater?
Danger is the subject of the fourth chapter. Our theology takes place in an encounter with a living God, which means we’re moving out from our comfort zones and walking a precarious path. Using the story of Nicodemus (John 3), Neder demonstrates how we can’t follow Jesus from a safe distance. Christianity is more than knowledge and doctrine. While that might think we can maintain a safe course, faith demands otherwise.
Neder’s final chapter is titled “Conversation.” Here the conversation is between us and God (and God’s word). Barth describes this as “primary conversation.” But we also need what Barth called secondary conversation, that between the student and other students (past and present). We learn from others, not just from the living, but also from those who preceded us. That’s why we study their written records, but it’s all in service to the primary conversation. their attempts at understanding God. Neder encourages his students to read widely and outside their tradition, to gain appreciation of and to maintain a healthy skepticism of their own traditions. Learning from a broad perspectives reminds us that in this imperfect world, we can always improve ourselves.
Neder then goes into detail about having such conversations in the classrooms. He encourages the teacher not to answer their own questions and to engage the students to help them arrive at the answers. It is also important for the teacher to understand the student’s questions. Failure to do so will cause a student to shut down.
There is much to commend in this book for teaching, but especially for the Christian teacher.
Grace is not opposed to working but to earning and self-reliance. (30)
Jesus wants followers, not admirers. (41)
Christians do not only receive from him (Jesus Christ), they also partner with him in the work he is doing in the world. (72)
Conversations with Jesus rarely unfold according to plan. Jesus continually shocks and astonishes people, rattles their cages, upends their expectations, eludes their traps, and zeroes in on their deepest motivations.” (96)
“Jesus is the most hazardous of all hazards.” -Barth in his Epistles to the Romans commentary (99)
“[W]e tend to talk about God as if he is not present. Few things are harder than remembering that God is alive and active in our classrooms, few things easier than teaching as if he is not.” (101)
“The pressure to sell Christianity at discount prices is intense, and Christian leaders who refuse to adjust to these conditions create very real problems for themselves.” (111-I would add, and for others.)
“Our aim is to lead students more deeply into the subject matter to which Scripture bears witness, and we cannot do that apart from the history of Christian reflection on Scripture.” (121).
“We read because we are not yet who we want to be, because our knowledge and our lives are not yet what we think they could or should be.” (128)
Katherine Stewart, The Power Worshippers: Inside the Dangerous Rise of Religious Nationalism
(2019, New York: Bloomsbury Publishing 2022), 342 pages including notes and index.
Katherine Stewart focuses her journalistic lens into the rise of religious nationalism within the United States. Following the money along with individuals who seem ubiquitously present (but always in the background such as David Barton, Tony Perkins, Peter Wagner, and R. J. Rushdoony), she shows how the movement is more than a cultural crusade against perceived social ills such as abortion or the LBGTQ community. Instead, she suggests the movement is about power. The movement isn’t necessarily conservative (as in maintaining the status quo), but radical at its core. One of its goals is to undo the democratic processes and grab power. As one founder noted, if they could just get support of 10% of the county, they could control the change. Along with being political, the movement seeks to mobilize churches to achieve their goals of creating a society based on their vision of a biblical worldview.
Stewart acknowledges the best resistance to the Christian Nationalism will probably come from other Christians. However, she only focuses on the movement itself. While she is honest about this from the beginning, her reporting left me feeling hopeless against such an onslaught.
In each chapter of the book, Stewart follows a particular organization or idea within the larger movement. She begins with a gathering of religious leaders in the Carolinas at Unionville Baptist Church just before the mid-term elections in 2018. The gathering was a forum for Tony Perkins, of the Family Research Council, to reach pastors to help them organize voters. While he didn’t mention the Republican party, everyone present knew he was promoting their candidates. Much of the danger of the Christian nationalist movement is they use politicians, preachers, and key moral arguments to consolidate power.
As has many others before her have pointed out such as Kristin DeMez in Jesus and John Wayne, Protestant Churches haven’t always been against abortion. Even in the early 70s, the Southern Baptist Convention supported abortion rights. Ronald Reagan as governor signed the most liberal abortion law to date. The big issue for many pastors of large conservative churches (such as Jerry Falwell and Bob Jones) was how to maintain tax exempt status of their segregated schools. Into this discussion came Paul Weyrich. He was a former Catholic (who’d joined a Melkite Greek Catholic Church after Vatican II). Weyrich saw an opportunity to help conservative causes as they made abortion a political issue hidden within a religious framework. This decision helped the conservative movement “Get Religion.” In the 60s and 70s, the liberals appeared to have religion on their side. This was especially so during the Civil Rights movement.
In other chapters, Stewart examines how Christian Nationalist attempt to rewrite history. Some within this movement draw deeply from historic teachings from the likes of Robert Lewis Dabney. He was a Southern theologian and an apologist for slavery before and during the Civil War. However, it’s wrong to think of the movement as only white as she explored those of other races within it. She looks at how others in the movement have developed massive data bases to help conservative pastors to get out the vote. Not surprisingly, home schooling is a big issue for many, as well as helping church sponsored schools.
Writing a few years before the reversal of Roe vs. Wade, she explores the movements attempt at remaking the nation’s courts. In addition to abortion, she also looks at how the movement, especially within Roman Catholic hospitals, who often limit medical care that’s provided. In the final chapter, she looks at the global movement and the draw to authoritarian leadership in other countries (including Russia) for those who identity with Christian Nationalism. While she shows the international reach of Christian Nationalism, I would recommend the reader check out Ann Applebaum’s The Twilight of Democracy.
We live in a fast-changing world. As a result, some of this book is out-of-date after less than five years. After all, after January 6, we have some Americans being willing to undermine democracy openly. Furthermore, the Supreme Court has overturned Roe vs. Wade thanks to the packing of the court with those who had that as a primary focus. And Russia has shown its hand in its invasion of Ukraine, claiming partly their goal is to save Christianity. This study provides the background for how this came about. It will be up to us to heed Stewart’s warnings. If not, the book might become prophetic. It’s my hope, by pointing out the goals of Christian Nationalists, this book can be an antidote to bringing about a world view that seems out-of-step with that rabbi from Galilee.
I recommend reading this book. Even more than that, I encourage those who see the danger of Christian Nationalism and strive to follow Jesus to consider how we can confront this attack on American Democracy. The abortion debate is one area that I find particularly disheartening. How can we discourage and reduce abortion on demand, which I feel should be the goal, while removing it from arena of politics? But if it has political advantages for some, I’m afraid it will continue to divide people and make our society even more unstable. Christian Nationalists have their own world view. Christians who strive to be faithful to their Savior need to articulate a world view that’s faithful to Scripture and Jesus Christ.
These are two other books which I read while down with COVID. While they may seem totally different, I did find some common ground between these two deep thinkers. Both are interested in how we can help others achieve their potential and sustain society.
Barry Lopez, Horizon(2019, New York: Vintage Books, 2020), 572 pages including maps, index, and bibliography.
In six extended essays, the late Lopez takes us along on his travels to isolated spots around the globe. As his fellow travelers, we are privy to his thoughts. Not only does he beautifully describe this location and what’s happening there, but each setting also allows him to converse with authors, artists, explorers, natives, and scientists. While each essay stands independently, there are several people from the past who appear in more than one of the essays. These include the British explorer, “James Cook,” the British scientist Charles Darwin, and a little known half-native Canadian, Randall McDonald (who taught English to the Japanese court years before Commander Perry opened the Japanese mainland to western shipping).
The book opens with a 47-page introduction titled, “Looking for a Ship” in which Lopez provides some background into his life and explorations. Much of this material was also covered in more detail his memoir,About This Life. However, the introduction does provide the reader with a context to understand Lopez’s journeys that take him to the polar caps and places in between. Lopez’s first essay centers around Cape Foulweather in Oregon, where Lopez lived when not traveling. Cape Foulweather is also the site of James Cooks first sighting of land along America’s West Coast in 1778. He tells about his many visits to this point, as he reads James Cooks travels and strives to understand how the landscape has changed over the years. His next stop is Skraeling Island in the arctic waters of northern Canada. Then he moves on to Puerto Ayora in the Galapagos, and then to the site of an archeological dig in Kenya (titled Jackal Camp). Next, he goes to an old British prison in Tasmania, before concluding his journey in the Antarctic. Some of these sites, Lopez visits for only a season. Others, he has returned many times.
Except for the Antarctic essay, which is the only place on earth without any human ancestry, Lopez seeks out to understand the lives of those who lived before the region was “discovered.” This includes Native Americans in Oregon, Paleoeskimos in the Arctic, South Sea islanders in the Galapagos, early humans in Africa, and Aboriginals in Australia. With his extensive knowledge in botany and biology, he discusses the changes to the landscape from human migration. As an example, I knew red foxes were not native to North America but learned the British also imported them to Australia for hunting.
These extended essays provide Lopez time to reflect on the colonial world, the role class plays in a society (which he even found in the scientific communities in the Antarctic), how animals and landscape evolve, and the concerns of the speed of such evolution in recent centuries. Lopez also looks to the future and ponders creating new ways of bringing more people to the table to discuss and help the world from the crisis that we are experiencing from industrialization. Lopez often comes back to the role elders play in traditional communities and suggests that we need to listen to them.
This is a book to be savored. Lopez encourages us to look around and to understand our place in the world.
QUOTE ON WHAT IT MEANS TO BE HUMAN: “to live in fear in a whole in which one’s destiny is never entirely of one’s own choosing.” (page 508).
Miroslav Volk, A Public Faith: How Followers of Christ Should Serve the Common Good(Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2011), 174 pages including notes and index.
There are many who blame religion for many of the world’s problems. Monotheistic religions seem especially vulnerable to such changes. While Volf is writing to Christians, he does make many references to Islam. Of course, all religions have examples of failing to live up to their potential (Volf labels this “malfunctions of faith”), Volf believes religion and especially the Christian faith has the potential to contribute much to the common good. Furthermore, as Volf notes, much of the terrible violence of the 20thCentury, the most violent century in human history, wasn’t because of religion. Genocide was most often conducted by secular regimes.
Volf begins his study by looking at how and why religious groups have failed to contribute to the common good. For Christians, this “malfunction of faith” is mostly due to our failure to “love God and love our neighbor.” The Christian faith, for Volf, is certainly not waiting for “pie in the sky.” Instead, our faith should be a source of human flourishing, and not just flourishing for believers, but all people. Religion is about the good life and requires religious people to engage in their communities for the good of all. However, he criticizes the extremes. The followers of Jesus should neither withdraw from society nor should they try to dominate society. Instead, with creativity, they should seek to engage positively in a religiously pluralistic world.
One of the problems in the West is that we tend to understand the good life as “experimental satisfaction,” which can never sustain our deepest desires. The source of the good life is not found within us, but outside, from God and from others. Only by living up to Jesus’ great commandment, can we experience such goodness.
Volf does not envision a world in which there is only one faith. In fact, as I pointed out above, he’s critical of such ideas. We will never be able to bring God’s kingdom to earth. Only God can do that. For us to attempt to bring about heaven to earth by silencing other beliefs will only lead to further malfunctions of our faith. Instead, he envisions a pluralistic world where those of all faith need to be in conversation with one another and learn from others. While Christians believe in the truth in Jesus Christ, that doesn’t mean there are not things we can learn from others. While he doesn’t use the term, the Calvinist view of “common grace” (as opposed to saving grace) seems to apply here. All good comes from God, including that which is good in those who may have a different view of faith from us.
Volf is a professor at Yale Divinity School and the director Center for Faith and Culture. There is a lot packed into this thin book on how we our faith can help a troubled world.
For those interested, Volf will be the keynote speaker at this year’s “HopeWords Writer’s Conference in Bluefield, West Virginia on March 24-25. This is a reasonably priced conference that I highly recommend. Check it out by clicking here.
I wrote this essay in the late 1990s.when I served a congregation in Utah and had no idea I would eventually end up back in the South… I recently pulled it out and edited it a bit before sharing it. The essay shows some of what I was reading at the time. If I would undertake such a quest to again to put my thoughts on preaching on paper, I’m sure it would be quite different. Nonetheless, much of what I wrote still seems relevant. -C. Jeffrey Garrison
Ramblings about my preaching
After worship, Howard Bennett, the church organist, came up to me smiling, his arm outstretched, and loudly proclaimed, “We have a preacher!” It was the second Sunday of September, 1988, Camel Race weekend. I had just preached my first sermon for the First Presbyterian Church of Virginia City, Nevada. For the next twelve months, I would serve the congregation as a student pastor. It felt good to hear Howard’s praise. I didn’t consider myself a preacher. I needed his affirmation for I didn’t know if I had what it would take to deliver a year’s worth of sermons to a group of people I was just getting to know. Howard’s praise provided confidence!
I based my sermon that day on the question Jesus asked the disciples in Mark 8:27, “Who do people say that I am?” The theme was Christocentric, heavy on theology and void of humor. Thinking back, I’m sure what Howard meant by his affirmation was that I sounded like a preacher. No longer am I sure it was a compliment, although I’m positive Howard meant it that way. What happened, I now believe, is that with a strong pulpit presence, I discovered how to make people listen—or at least stay awake. I’m not so sure this is all together positive. Staying awake in some of my sermons might fall into the cruel and unusual punishment category.
One thing I learned early on in preaching is that there was a benefit to my accent. I disagree with Norman Maclean’s father, a first generation Scottish Presbyterian preacher in Montana. The elder Maclean tried to eradicate his Scottish brogue and despised those who came from the mother country and flaunted their accent. Instead, I have found that having an accent makes people take notice. Perhaps it’s because they must concentrate on listening. Down South, I’d be just another prophet without honor instead of the celebrity I became during my three years in the pulpit in upstate New York.. Sometimes, of course, the benefits of an accent are mixed and lead to misunderstandings. There are still people in Virginia City who believed my Palm Sunday sermon about Pilate, had something to do with a pilot (perhaps he flew for Air Rome).
Although I count my accent a benefit, I have always considered my uniquely southern-style grammar and diction a liability. I’ve struggled with grammar and when I get excited and talk fast, any rules of grammar which I might have picked up along the way fly out the window. Even though I’m proud to be a Southerner in the pulpit, at times I’m a bit afraid the congregation might think of me as a bumbling idiot. Southerners in general suffer from this malaise which serves as an antidote to our healthy sense of pride.
A few years ago, I had the opportunity to spend a week studying with the late Dr. W. Frank Harrington of Peachtree Presbyterian Church in Atlanta, Georgia. The conference was in Hastings, Nebraska and consisted of Presbyterian pastors in the Rocky Mountain or Plains states. Frank, the pastor of the largest church within the denomination, amazed me in how commanded everyone’s attention with his thick slow southern voice. Frank vindicated southern preaching for me. His approach in the pulpit was like a Southern lawyer addressing the jury. Leaning up against the pulpit, speaking in a slow conversational tone, he’d get us to laugh and to cry and then, when he had us hooked, demand we make some decision concerning our faith. “Always preach for a conviction,” Frank repeatedly reminded us.
Frank was a true Southerner. Like all great preachers—J. Wilbur Chapman, B. Frank Hall, C. Kenneth Hall, D. Lyman Moody. C. Wesley Jennings and C. Jeffrey Garrison—he had an initial in front of his real name. Although he never admitted this, I’m willing to bet he cursed his parents to the grave for not using his first name. As a Southerner, Frank had the ability to tell stories and to laugh at himself, invaluable gifts for preaching. All of us have fallen short of God’s glory and Frank’s prime fault was that he hailed from the lesser of the Carolinas.
With only a few notable exceptions such as Norman Maclean, Southern authors have, in my humble opinion, been the only literary voice in twentieth century America. Even non-Southerners such as Big Sky writer, A.B. Gurthie, Jr., big game stalker Ernest Hemingway and the quintessential bum Jack Kerouac found it necessary to sojourn in the South. As with Frank Harrington’s preaching, these authors remind me that we Southerners have something to say. Sometimes it might not be what people want to hear, but we say it anyway, partly because we’re ornery, partly because that’s what we feel God calls us to do.
What is preaching?
H. Eddie Fox, a Southerner who hails from the Methodist tradition, defines preaching as proclaiming: “the biography of the deeds of God in terms of one’s autobiography with the hope that persons, enabled by the power of the Holy Spirit, respond to God’s act of forgiveness in Jesus Christ, in repentance and faith, and live out the new life in faithfulness to the kingdom of God.”
This definition leaves out an important component of preaching, the call of God. As Fox and his co-author George Morris points out a few pages later, the Jonah story demonstrates “two fundamental truths.” Going to Nineveh wasn’t Jonah’s idea and hearing about God wasn’t the Ninevites’ idea. God wanted the word out. Preaching is proclaiming God’s biography, but at God’s request. When I honor this request, I trust God’s Spirit works in the life of the hearers so they may be moved by God in ways I, as the preacher, may never know.
The humbling knowledge that God’s in charge
Sometimes preaching is humbling. There was a woman in the Virginia City congregation who was living, with kids, in an abusive situation. During one sermon, she heard me say something that empowered her leave her husband and seek safety. To this day, I’m not sure what she heard because I was preaching what I thought was an ecological message about taking care of God’s creation. God does work in mysterious ways—even to the point of allowing someone hear the gospel in a sermon that has little to do with the message. John Calvin explains the power of preaching to be in the Word, not in the minister. Though humbling to our egos, there is comfort knowing God uses preaching and teaching to “awaken faith and promote sanctification.” The burden of preaching is lifted from our shoulders and placed upon God’s broad shoulders.
Of course, knowing God works through our preaching does not excuse us from preparation. Preaching is hard work. We must incorporate God’s Word into the modern situation and do it in a way that doesn’t bore our congregations to death. Preaching should not be, as I once heard a professor from a reformed theological seminary sarcastically quip, “taking out and examining the doctrines.” Preaching should be alive. It involves telling stories—God’s story and our story. And telling stories should be fun and humorous.
Billy Sunday, the so-so baseball player for the Pittsburgh Pirates who became a sensational (or sinsational?) evangelist, once said: “God likes a little humor, as evidenced by the fact that He made the monkey, the parrot—and some of you people.” Today, the preacher task is more challenging. Media moguls, with resources to create mind-blowing scenes, have taken over storytelling. The preacher must rely on the use of words and an occasional gesture to connect to the mind of the listener so that his or her imagination might visualize the possibilities that exist within God’s kingdom.
Probably the greatest gift a preacher can give to his or her work is honesty. This means we may have less to say than we’d think. One of the problems with preaching is that people expect us to have answers and we, wanting to please, also want to answers questions concerning life and faith. But do we? What do we really know?
Wendell Berry, a Kentucky tobacco farmer who spins a pretty good story, tells about the preacher in Port William’s, Kentucky, who, upon learning that a son of parishioners is missing-in-action during World War Two, immediately goes over to family’s home. A relative of the missing man, while discussing this visit, says, “the worst thing about preachers is they think they’ve got to say something whether anything can be said or not.” The task of preaching is to be honest and at times admit we do not know what God is doing. Instead, we are called to be faithful. As the funeral liturgy goes, “even at the grave we make our song, alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.”
Development of my theology; Or, before you get into the pulpit, you better have something to say
I was born in Pinehurst, North Carolina, just two days after the death of Humphrey Bogart. This was the same year that Jack Kerouac published On the Road, Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas shot it out in the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, and Elvis released “Jailhouse Rock.” In some existential sort of way, these events may have played a role in my theology. Since I don’t know anyone alive who understands existentialism, I’ll refrain from speculation.
Culdee Presbyterian Church
My theological development started on Easter Sunday, 1957. The location was Culdee Presbyterian Church, located in Eastwood, North Carolina, a community which even then didn’t have a post office. It had a Shell Station, a small grocery store called “Bunches,” and a Presbyterian Church. The Post Office closed about the same time the last logging train pulled out of Eastwood Station. This was before my grandmother’s birth. Culdee Presbyterian Church was built on a sandy ridge between Nick’s Creek and the Lower Little River. My Scottish ancestors settled this land two hundred and some years earlier. Out on the ridge where the church sat, they staked out a cemetery filled with many of my ancestors.
At the time of my baptism, Culdee consisted of a white-washed pine board church and a cinder block Sunday School building. The McKenzies, Blues, and McDonalds had organized the congregation in the dark decades after that fateful and foolish charge up Seminary Ridge. Ninety-five years later, they were just beginning to get over it, although it would take another generation or two to completely purge the system. On that Easter Sunday, dressed in my finest, my mother and father, flanked by grandparents and great-grandparents, presented me to the Reverend J. Thomas Young to be baptized. A few drops later, I was marked as a member of the Covenant.
The Garrison/McKenzie clan played an important role in my early theological development. My Grandfather Garrison had converted to Presbyterianism from a hard-shell Primitive Baptist background, due to his marriage to my grandmother. His conversion represented a pentecostal event in the life of Culdee. The congregation witnessed God’s love extending even to those without a Scottish name. He serves as elder at Culdee for many years. The presbytery elected a commissioner to the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church, US. Unfortunately, his health kept him from attending. Although he died twenty years ago, to this day I still think of my grandfather as the ideal elder. He regularly read and studied the Bible. His prayers at the table, when the family gathered, were reverent and brought to my mind an image of a good and loving God.
My Great Grandfather McKenzie has also served as a model of faithfulness for me. He served as an elder for forty years and for most of that time was also the Sunday School superintendent. My great grandfather died when I was in Junior High, but I can still see him in the room at my grandparents. He lived with them the last couple years of his life. He would sit in his rocking chair and read the Bible. When the good book wasn’t in his hands, it would be sitting next to his bed on the nightstand. The family in which I was born was steeped in the Bible.
Early memories of church
My early memory of church was watching our neighbor, Art Zenn, prepare the site for a new building with his bulldozer. It was great fun to watch him push dirt around. The congregation started construction on its new sanctuary around 1960. My grandfather was on the building committee and did much of the plumbing and heating work. My father and great-uncle built the copper clad steeple. A crane hosted the structure into place. In 1962, just a year before we moved away from the area, the new building was complete. They tore the old, white-washed wooden sanctuary down. The new brick church began to grow as it reached out to new people in the community. No longer are all the officers Scottish or married to a Scot.
Cape Fear Presbyterian
I grew up in was Cape Fear Presbyterian Church in Wilmington, North Carolina, a city we moved to when I was in elementary school. My fondest memories are working on the Boy Scouts of America God and Country award with the pastor, C. Wesley Jennings. Mr. Jennings only had daughters and found the scouting program a way to make up for this shortcoming. He prodded my brother and me through the program. During this time, I began to understand more about what it meant to accept Jesus Christ as one’s Lord and Savior. As I started High School, I began to read the entire Living Bible, in a teen version called “The Way.” The Bible had been a Christmas gift. I checked off each chapter read in the front of this Bible. Although I gave up the challenge after a few months, I read over half of the Scriptures.
Encouraged to consider the ministry
While in High School, my congregation started electing women and youth to church offices. I was honored to have my name placed in nomination for deacon and surprised to be elected. In the Southern Presbyterian Church, Deacons had oversight of the budget and buildings as well as being responsible for taking up the offering and serving as ushers. I bought a suit and assumed my duties. The hostility within meetings shocked me. Money does that! While serving as a Deacon, people began to suggest I should become a preacher.
The ministry was not an altogether new idea. I had told my grandmother, when I was ten, that I planned to be a Presbyterian minister. As soon as the words were out of my mouth I began to wonder where they came from. However, the ministry seemed an exciting possibility, yet I wasn’t totally comfortable with the idea. It would be another decade before I felt the call to the ministry. By then, I had graduated from college, worked in a bakery, and for the Boy Scouts. I had also been married and divorced and had moved to western North Carolina.
My call to ministry was a process that began with my healing from a broken marriage. My first wife and I had problems. We separated. Then she became pregnant from another man. We quickly divorced, and she remarried. Crushed, I slipped into a period of depression which lasted a couple years.
Experiencing a call
A new town and new friends restored my confidence, and a new church again offered me a chance to serve by spending one night a month in a homeless shelter. It was also a time of decisions as I was trying to decide if I wanted to stay on with the Boy Scouts or seek some other form of employment. During this time, the thoughts of seminary began to come to me. On a backpacking trip early in January 1986, while mulling over options, I decided I’d try seminary. When I got home, I called one of the pastors at the church I’d joined in Hickory. Even though we’d never discussed the ministry, he asked, “what took you so long?” That Spring I received affirmation from many minister friends, two of whom were Lutheran.
I also received my first opportunity to preach that Scout Sunday, just a few weeks after deciding to enter seminary. As a scout executive, I had often been invited by troops to “say a few words” at their church. Then, out of the blue, this pastor whom I’d never meet, called and told me he planned on me giving the sermon on Scout Sunday. I was floored. The first Sunday in February 1986, I preached my first sermon in a Methodist Church. That summer, I sold my house and moved up north and entered Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. I’d chosen Pittsburgh over Union at Richmond and Columbia in Georgia because I’d never been there and wanted to see what it was like. Besides, Roberto Clemente had played ball there.
Looking back on it all, I can see God’s hand gently nudging me toward seminary and the ministry. While at Pittsburgh, I worked in two different congregations, both of whom encouraged me in my journey. God’s guidance and the love and encouragement of these folks prepared me for the task of preaching. My own journey taught me to trust and place my faith in God.
Impact of Growing Up Southern On My Theology
Oscar Wilde supposedly said, in the aftermath of the American Civil War, that “one couldn’t admire the moon in Georgia without being told how much better it looked before the War.” Mark Twain noticed the same thing in conversations about the moon in New Orleans. These two accounts mean either my Southern ancestors spent a lot of time looking at the moon during the closing decades of the nineteenth century or someone stole another’s story without properly crediting them. It doesn’t much matter anyway.
The Truth Behind Southern Mythology
It’s a well-known fact that southerners, at least those of us who are Caucasian, reminisce over the antebellum period when our ancestors spent afternoons sipping mint juleps in rocking chairs on the porch of the big house. Listening to these stories, one must assume this was also an era before mosquitoes, ticks, sand gnats, and flies. Those pests must have been introduced as retribution by those pesky Yankees.
The truth is that few of our ancestors enjoyed such luxury, but after Sherman burned everything, one could always act like the family lost its fortune during the war. Even when I was a child, 100 years after it was all over, what seemed important was not how much money your family had, but how much it had before the War. If the truth was known, my kinfolk was probably out in the swamps, hard at work chopping wood for the still that made whiskey for the mint juleps that everyone else’s family enjoyed on their front porches. While swatting gnats, they’d swap stories about ghosts which, once they got around, explained those mysterious lights in the swamps and help keep the revenuers at bay.
Lost Eden or New Jerusalem
All this nonsense just goes to prove that Southern Theology, at least the theology of the common folk, focuses more on the lost Eden than it does on the coming kingdom. In other words, we look back more than we look forward. Although it rings true in the South, in some ways this is true about all of America. “The biblical image of humankind living in a garden dies hard in America,” notes William Pannell, a professor of evangelism at Fuller Theological Seminary. We long for the past and this hinders our ability at sharing the gospel in a world that no longer looks or shares the same heritage as we do. Pannell jokes that southern style religion as shown on television is “merely a camp meeting with air conditioning.” The people such productions reach “are in harmony with the style and message of the preacher.”
Just because Southerners tend to look back to the garden doesn’t mean we don’t anticipate the return of Christ. We think and worry about the second coming a lot. We certainly don’t want to do something we’re not supposed to be doing when Michael’s trumpet blows.
My great granddaddy, who was born in the late 1880’s, often shared stories about his childhood with me. Sometime around the turn of the century, he was in another man’s watermelon patch doing what boys from the South do best. He’d cut open a watermelon, eat it’s heart out, drop the rest of the melon for the birds and seek out another ripe juicy one to enjoy. It was the middle of a hot cloudless day when suddenly the sky turned dark, and the temperature dropped. He noticed that the birds singing as if it was evening. My great granddaddy looked up and saw the sun disappear. He dropped the watermelon and ran for all eternity, as fast as his bare feet could take him. He didn’t want to be caught raiding another man’s watermelon patch on judgment day.
It is my belief that one’s theology needs to look both backwards and forward. We need to look back beyond the Civil War, to first century Palestine and that man we claim to be God named Jesus Christ. And we need to look forward, not in a fearful way to the horrors of judgment, but to Jesus’ promise of a new and coming kingdom. Perhaps looking forward has been difficult for southerners because of the guilt of our past. Even the most ardent racist would have a hard time reconciling a belief in a kingdom where non-whites would be subservient to the rest of us.
The Spirituality of the Church
One of the theology I grappled with coming out of the Southern stream of the Presbyterian Church is the concept known as the “Spirituality of the Church.” This doctrine was taught by one of the South’s greatest theologians, the “humble” James Henley Thornwell, a man who admitted he wanted to be “regarded as the greatest scholar and most talented man that ever lived.” The concept of the “Spirituality of the Church” separated the church and state into “two separate spheres of authorities and functions.” The church was to be spiritual. Its task was evangelism, to bring people to Christ and then to send them back into the world where they carried out social obligations as Christians.
There is much appeal in this concept. It is true that a regenerated individual who lives his or her life in Christ should make a wonderful public servant and carry forth Christ’s will into the public sector. The church is the one organization designed to bring people into a relationship with God. There are other organizations better suited to carrying social change than the church. However, the concept has been misused to keep the church quiet on serious social issues (like slavery and race relations). Prophets of old did not limit the scope of their wrath to the spiritual realm and neither should the church. Jesus reminder that we need to be wise as serpents and as gentle as doves probably applies here.
The doctrine of “the spirituality of the church” as well as a strong emphasis on Scripture, helped separate politics from the church. As a result, the pulpit became a place where only sins specifically forbidden in Scripture were condemned. An interesting challenge to this doctrine, which crossed denominational lines, came from the Methodist revivalist Sam Jones. A former alcoholic, Jones became an ardent prohibitionist and turned his revivals into “civic reform crusades” seeking to limit society’s access to alcohol, prostitution, and gambling. By the time I grew up in the South, the drinking of alcohol, which is not prohibited in scripture, was often portrayed as the root of all evil. This created sort of a split personality amongst southerners. Some sins not listed in scripture were condemned while others, such as racism, were labelled as a political problem and not discussed in the pulpit.
Growing up southern, I memorized at a young age Paul’s word, “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” I think I could have quoted this verse even before I could quote John 3:16. However, there seemed to be a distinction between sins. Although we’ve all sinned in some spiritual sort of way, some of us have sinned more than others and those of us who have sinned by the flesh have thereby fallen further from God’s glory and are to be looked upon with contempt. It is biblical that we’ve all sinned, but this categorization of sinfulness only serves to create a false pride in those who are strong enough to avoid being caught in the sins of the flesh (drunkenness, adultery, etc.).
I wish someone, at an early age, could have reinforced the concept of God’s grace as well as they taught the concept of sin. I would have been a lot more accepting of others had I understood all along that God’s love extends equally to even the vile sinner.
Current State of My Theology
Somehow, I managed to survive growing up in the South. As a preacher, I am thankful for my past, it provides great source material for sermons. Partly due to my growing up in the South, I was instilled with reverence for Scripture, Almighty God, a need for a Savior, the importance of a religious community, and a fear that hell is being unable to swat mosquitoes in a backwater swamp on a hot day. Most of these traits have served me well as I’ve tried to tell others about Jesus Christ.
I spent last week at Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, Georgia with a group organized by the Foundation for Reformed Theology. We gather once a year to discuss agreed upon reading of serious theology. We had last meet in early March 2021 in Austin, Texas. That was the last time I’ve been on a plane. When we departed from home that year, the airport appeared to be dying. We knew our world was in a midst of change. It was good to be back together, even though the world hasn’t completely returned to normal.
This year, our major reading was from Karl Barth’s Christology section in his massive work, Church Dogmatics. In seminary, almost 35 years ago, we had to read some selections of Barth’s writings. Since then, I have only read his revised commentary on Romans, where Barth moved away from 19th liberal theology in the years after the First World War. This summer, in addition to reading the Dogmatics, I also read Christiane Tietz’s new biography of Barth which I reviewed a few months ago.
At best, I have a love/hate relationship with Barth. A brilliant man, it feels as if he wrote down every word that came into his brain. But amidst all the thoughts and ideas, there are often real jewels of ideas. I imagine reading Barth is a bit like mining diamonds. This time around, I came to appreciate Barth’s footnotes, where he defends his ideas with brilliant exegesis of scripture.
Traditionally, theologians develop their Christology after outlining the inability of humanity to save itself. Barth flips this idea on its head, first writing about the God who journeyed “into the far country.” Barth wants us to realize that grace always comes before sin. We experience this through Jesus Christ, who Barth also goes into depth to show was God. And God comes and lives among us. When they Pharisees condemned Jesus for eating with sinners, tax collectors, and prostitutes, they were acknowledging the radicalness of this God who comes to us. Barth builds his theology around Jesus Christ. We must take our focus off our selves (and our pride) and find ourselves connected to a God who comes in a small and insignificant manner. Barth’s ideas continue as he discusses judgment, sin, pride, and the fall. This is a brief explanation of 30-some hours of discussion!
Every afternoon, after spending hours talking about Barth, I would take a walk, From the yard signs, you can tell that Decatur is breaking Georgia’s image. Everywhere were signs in support of BLM and civil rights. Even yards that were decorated for Halloween had a message! I also learned that the first ever Waffle House was in the community of Avondale. Now we know who to blame…
Midnight Train to Georgia
Having just driven to Hilton Head, Savannah, then Wilmington, I decided to travel differently. I took the train from Danville, Virginia to Atlanta. This is a section of the route known as the Southern Crescent, which starts in New York and continues to New Orleans. Traveling in a roomette, I boarded the train at 11:20 PM. A waxing moon seemed to hang just outside my window. I fell asleep to the gentle rocking, the faint sound of the engine whistling, and the beeping and flashing lights on the lower guards as we raced through crossings. I woke as the train stopped and looked out the window. We were in Toccoa, Georgia. I had slept through the Carolinas.
Sadly, however, I learned this train no longer has a dining car. It seems that most of the dining cars on the eastern trains have been removed because they were beyond repair. Breakfast was a microwave affair, and like other affairs, was unsatisfying.
Once arriving in Atlanta, I walked almost a mile, over to the midtown Marta Station. I had packed everything into a backpack, so I was able to easily navigate around the streets (which were all closed for a citywide race). At Marta, the Atlanta area light rail, I took the train to Five Points, where I caught the east line out to Avondale. While I could have taken a bus to the seminary, I again walked. I was late for church at Columbia Presbyterian, so I spent much of the afternoon walking around the community.
Eating in the Big City
During my week at Columbia, all my big meals of the day were ethnic: Thai (2x), Indian, Korean, Alsace (French), and Vietnamese. On Friday, I met Mike, a friend from Savannah, who was in Atlanta. We spent the afternoon cursing the traffic, walking around Piedmont Park, and eating dinner (Thai), before he dropped me off at the station and headed back south, to home.
Coming back, the train was late. I was exhausted and ready to crawl into bed. But there was a problem with my printed ticket. As they were rushing to load the train, the conductor finally told me to get aboard and go to the lounge car (which was empty at 1 AM). It turned out, the conductor when I came down never scanned my ticket (I assumed he had). Then, the system had cancelled my trip. Thankfully, there was a roomette (but the attendant had to remake the room as it had just become available). But by the time the train arrived in Gainesville, our first stop after Atlanta, I was snuggled up in bed.
I arrived back to the mountains in time to see the leaves at their peak.
This month I’ve been involved with academic travels through the Southeast, intersperse with family and fun activities. I began with a road trip to Hilton Head, where I spent three rainy days as a part of a Theology Matters’ conference held at Providence Presbyterian Church. The church has a massive campus on the south end of the island. Unfortunately, the rain was such that I didn’t even walk from the hotel to the church as I’d done in the past. Thankfully, the last day, the weather cleared long enough for me to take a walk out on the beach. In addition to interesting discussions, it was good to see a number of old friends and to make some new ones.
The conference, “from Generation to Generation,” looked at how we continue to share the gospel to each new generation. It featured stimulating lectures and as always, I came away with a more books on my to-be-read (TBR) pile. Below is a brief introduction to the keynote lecturers and their topics:
James Edwards, professor emeritus of theology of Whitworth College in Spokane, Washington gave two of the keynote speeches. I have always enjoyed listening to Dr. Edwards. His commentaries on Mark and Luke are a stable in my library. He spent much of his time discussing the development of the early church. Edwards hold the view that the concept of God in the early church came from its Jewish roots, not from a marriage between Jewish and Greek thought. Edwards made connection between the early church, existing under the Roman thumb, and the church today. He noted that autocrats are always powerful (and dangerous) during crisis, but that the church is called to be a truthteller in such times. Interestingly, Edwards has recently written a book on the ministry of Ernst Lohmeyer, who was persecuted by the Nazis and later executed by the Soviets shortly after World War II. But it was his newest book that made my TBR list: From Christ to Christianity: How the Jesus Movement Became the Christian Church in Less than a Century (Baker 2021).
Jennifer Powell McNutt, professor of theology at Wheaton College, spoke on the church in exile. Drawing on the current refugee problem along with the refugee issues of the 16th Century, she noted that the refugee crisis impacted the life and work of John Calvin. She also noted how, during the Reformation, being a follower of Jesus could easily lead one into a refugee situation. In Calvin’s commentary on 1st Peter, he reminds us that “children of God are only guest in the world.” However, even though we are exiles on earth, we are called to engage and be in ministry, as opposed to withdrawing from the world. And part of the church’s calling is to “end the suffering of others.” While she drew heavily from Calvin, she also drew from Theodore Beza, Calvin’s successor, of whom I learned was an accomplished poet. I never knew this about him and will need to learn more. McNutt is author of Calvin Meets Voltaire: The Clergy of Geneva in the Age of Enlightenment, 1685-1798. While it sounds interesting, it is expensive. I did pick up a copy of a book she edited, The People’s Book: The Reformation and the Bible.
Jeffrey Bullock, President of Dubuque Theological Seminary titled his lecture, “7 Observations on Theological Education.” While his jumping off point was the seminary, his observations had more to do with the church at large. He told of the church where he came to faith in Jesus Christ (his parents weren’t religious) which closed. They didn’t have to close. They still had significant resources, but they were tired. And to the very end, there was someone taking minutes. We Presbyterians have a way to make sure everything is neat and in order. While maintaining church order, Bullock suggests we have lost the vision. He also had criticism on “too many duds” who come to seminary misfit for ministry and how the church needs competent leadership. Furthermore, he critiqued seminaries for being too much an academy and having no connections with churches. Pastors, while they can gain knowledge in seminary, must be nurtured in the church, according to Bullock. He also believes the “project” of the mainline denomination has come to an end. Once the religion of America became its culture, we lost our identity.
Richard Ray, former professor and currently chairman of the board for the Presbyterian Heritage Center in Montreat, NC, picked up on the theme of exiles, reminding us that we’re always safer in exile. When things are going well, it’s harder to experience divine power. The Bible invites us into divine power, which is invisible to many because it is revealed in weakness. Quoting Augustine, “our words are not adequate for what is being portrayed but that is the beauty of it all.” The Bible is about miracles. It’s saying, “You want believe what will happen with Jesus.” Our help is not in our abilities but in God’s power, which is the beauty of Scripture. Like others, Ray pointed to the late 1930s when the danger of totalitarianism in the world was high with the rise of fascism and totalitarian communism. From this era, he recommended the novel Darkness at Noon, by Arthur Koetler, which dealt with a Stalinist style government.
Steve Crocco, recently retired as the librarian at the Yale Divinity School, titled his talk, “Running Toward the Sound of Gunfire. He spoke about how we era now ending a new era after the end of Christendom. Noting that ministry has always been difficult, we now have new challenges that the church has never faced. Quoting Karl Barth’s famous saying that one should preach with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in another, he joked that it was a shame no one asked Barth which newspaper. Today, there are no consensus on which news source to trust. His advice was to focus on the letter to the church in Ephesus in the book of Revelation. There, the church is praised for its truth, but condemned for having lost its first love. The love of Jesus compels the church into the danger. He noted how many in the Nazis era, were too scared to speak out. But there were a few like Bonhoeffer, who “ran back toward the sound of gunfire” when he left his comfortable position in New York to return to Germany as war loomed. Of course, Bonhoeffer the Nazis executed Bonhoeffer.
After his talk, I had lunch with Steve. It was good to catch up. We hadn’t seen each other in over 30 years. In my first year of seminary, he was hired as a new PhD to be the librarian at Pittsburgh Seminary. We played some ball together, as that first year he lived in a student apartment with his family as he attended the University of Pittsburgh to earn a Master’s in Library Science (a requirement for his job). Steve left Pittsburgh after nearly 10 years. He would go on to serve as head librarian at Princeton Theological Seminary, the Army War College, and then Yale Divinity School.
Joseph Small, retired director for the Office of Theology and Worship of the Presbyterian Church USA, encouraged us to ask the burning question of those in the church, “Is it true?” He went on encourage deep theological thinking while suggesting there are four basic theological questions: 1. Who is God really, 2. Who are we, who am I, 3. What does God have to do with us? And 4. What do we have to do with each other? Then Small cheated a bit and suggested a fifth question, “What am I going to do now?” Small encouraged us to read at least one significant theological book a month and to read it in a community of others with whom you could discuss our reading. His book recommendation was Douglas John Hall’s Lighten Our Darkness.
Todd Billings teaches Historical Theology at Western Theological Seminary in Holland, Michigan. Unfortunately, at the last minute, his doctors encouraged him not to travel as he has been struggling with terminal cancer. So, he sent a recorded his talk titled, “A Surprising Hope: Bearing Wounds.” Billings first focused on the pandemic. He lamented how our culture trains us to deal with emergencies by finding someone else to blame (we act as if our ideological opponents are always wrong). In too many ways, our public dialogue is much like the pharisee in Matthew 18, who gives thanks in his prayers that he’s not like others. But Jesus was critical of this pharisee. Instead, new need to present a genuine faithfulness to the world, one that shows we serve a God who can bring water into the desert. He notes how Paul refers to our body as a temple. We need to remember that the temple does not make God active, but thinking of our body as a temple reminds us that we do not belong to ourselves. Furthermore, no temple is holy. Only the God who resides there is holy. If we think we are holy, we will be disappointed and not have a hope with which we can pass on to a new generation. Billings’ memoir (of him and his family struggling with cancer and his mortal limits) is titled The End of Christian Life. It has jumped to the top of my TBR pile.
After three days on Hilton Head, I drove down to Savannah with the plans to sail on Friday and Saturday. Sadly, Friday brought too little wind and way too much rain. But I did get a long sail in on a J24 with some friends from the Landings Sail Club on Saturday morning and early afternoon. Then, I drove to Wilmington, NC and spent a couple of nights with my father, before heading back to the mountains.
In last week’s sermon, I mentioned this blog post, which failed to transition from my old “thepulpitandthepen.com” blog to this one. So I am posting it again.
The highlight of Christian worship is the Lord’s Supper. We break bread and share wine together, uniting ourselves through a very ordinary act with all the saints who have gone before us and to Christ himself. It’s a mysterious feast, especially for the stomach that often leaves the meal hungry.
Standing in front of the table, the minister repeats Jesus’ words. “This is my body broken for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” In the Reformation, Protestants and Catholics fought over the meaning of these words—whether or not the bread was really Jesus’ body. Protestant Reformers could smugly point out that Jesus also said he was a door and nobody believes he is a literal door, wooden or otherwise. From the small portions used, you would think that all churches believed that it was Jesus’ actual body and they must hoard some for future generations. Of course, Protestants like me do not believe the bread is the literal body of Christ, but a sign to remind us of our unity with Christ in his death and resurrection.
The second part of the service involves drinking wine or, as most Protestants prefer, grape juice. Again, Jesus’ words are spoken: “This cup is the new covenant sealed in my blood, shed for you for the forgiveness of sins.” In the Middle Ages, only priests were allowed to drink the wine because of a fear the common people might actually spill some. Only Jesus can shed his blood, they reasoned. In some churches, everyone drinks from the same cup, a nice gesture that demonstrate how we all share in Christ. However, the majority of American Protestant Churches understanding that such sharing involves germs; therefore, they use small individual cups about the size of a thimble. Since the women’s movement, most of these churches have begun using disposal plastic cups because no one is volunteering to wash the glass ones. Ecologically minded Christians are bothered by this waste, but until they sign up for cup washing, the trend toward plastic cups will continue.
Christians participate in the Lord’s Supper in a variety of ways. Preferred methods resemble fast food. In most Methodist, Lutheran and Episcopal Churches, everyone goes up to the front of the sanctuary and kneels or stands, awaiting their turn to receive the bread and cup. The most common way in Baptist and Presbyterian churches is the drive-in method. Sitting in a pew, the elements are brought to you. A take-out plan is generally available for those unable to attend services.
Another method that has become more common is intinction. Each worshipper breaks off a piece of bread and dips it into the cup. This method rapidly facilitates the distribution of the elements, however the Biblical foundation for such a technique is weak. Even the most liberal exegete would have a hard time interpreting Jesus’ words, “take and eat” with “take and dunk.” More problematic for those sharing this method is that the only example we have of a disciple eating dipped bread in this manner at the Last Supper was Judas Iscariot.
Historical methods of celebration
A hundred or so years ago, it was common for American Protestants to actually sit around a real table and share a feast with others. This method, which had its roots in the Scottish Church, was the formal dining plan. To be allowed a seat at the table, a member produced a communion token. He or she earned these tokens by being good, paying one’s tithe, not breaking the commandments, and attending a preparatory lecture. After the preparatory lecture, they were given a communion token. As the worshipper approached the table, the maître’ d, a role played by an elder, greeted the worshipper. Those without a token to tip the maitre’ d, found themselves escorted to the door by the same elder who was also a bouncer. Once seated, the worshippers were served a hunk of bread and a cup of wine. This was done rapidly in order to accommodate the next seating. Unfortunately, for all its appeal, formal dining has gone the way of fine china and finger bowls. Few churches bother.
As Christians, we celebrate the Lord’s Supper in order to proclaim the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. We do this obediently and solemnly. Nobody talks; everyone bows their head. Most believe they conduct the service in the same manner as Jesus. But they have forgotten that Jesus instituted this sacrament at the Passover meal which consisted of four cups of wine. Unlike the Passover, a modern communion service lasts just a few minutes, after which everyone is still able to drive home.
The celebration of the Lord’s Supper also serves as a foretaste of the kingdom to come. At the heavenly banquet, we will all sit at table with Christ at the head. The Bible doesn’t give us the menu, but considering that four of the disciples were fisherman, maybe it will be a seafood banquet. Or maybe lamb supplied by the good shepherd at the head table. Whatever the menu, the heavenly banquet promises to be livelier than the somber communion services. This is a good thing. Mark Twain noted that if heaven is just sitting around singing hymns, he couldn’t understand why anyone would want to go there. Likewise, if the heavenly banquet is only as exciting as its earthly counterpart, no one will RSVP.
After communion, the minister pronounces the benediction. Like the flagman at Indianapolis, it signals the beginning of a race. Some parishioners rush out to a restaurant. In good Christian competition, they attempt to beat those from other churches. Others head home where the television is the first order of business. After finding the game of the week, one family pulls a roast from the oven while another grills burgers out back. Those without ambition order pizza. Such hearty food is served. As long as the right team wins, we laugh and love joyfully. After having fed us at his table, Jesus wonders why he’s not included.
What are you reading this days? Looking for a good book while you isolate yourself? Here are three books from books I recently read. It’s by sheer accident that two of them discuss Epictetus (but different parts of his philosophy):
P. M. Forni, The Civility Solution: What to Do When People are Rude (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2008), 266 pages including notes.
The late P. M. Forni was the founder of the Civility Institute at John Hopkins University. In this short book, he deals with issues we face all the time, rude people. He encourages his readers to take the high and honest road when dealing with such folks. It’s the only way to build a more civil world.
In the first chapter, Forni defines rudeness as a disregard for others and an attempt to “control through invalidation”. He lists the costs rudeness has for individuals, the economy, and society: stress, loss of self-esteem, loss of productivity, and the potential of violence. He also discusses the cause of rudeness, which is simplifies as a bad “state of mind”.
In the second chapter, Forni presents and explains how to prevent rudeness by listing and explaining eight rules for a civil life:
Slow down and be present in your life
Listen to the voice of empathy
Keep a positive attitude
Respect others and grant them plenty of validation
Disagree graciously and refrain from arguing
Get to know the people around you
Pay attention to the small things
Ask, don’t tell
In the third chapter, Forni writes about how we can “accept real-life rudeness.” He quotes Epictetus, who encourages us to want things to happen as they happen for a life to go well. After all, we can’t control other people, and if we expect that there will be rudeness in life, we won’t be surprised. But once we accept the situation, then we can act upon it, which may be to remove ourselves or to refuse to be react. “Rudeness is someone else’s problem foisted on you,” Forni notes (62). Once we accept reality, we may choose to respond appropriately and even assertively to redirect the situation.
In the fourth chapter, Forni writes about how we respond to rudeness, but does so by beginning with a wonderful (and very rude example) from two 18th Century British politicians. Scolding his rival, John Montagu cried, “Upon my soul, Wilkes, I don’t know whether you’ll die upon the gallows or of syphilis.” Wilkes responded, “That will depend, my Lord, on whether I embrace your principles, or your mistress” (67). Forni suggests that when we encounter rudeness, we cool off, calm ourselves, don’t take it personally (most often it’s not personal), and then decide what we need to do. While we do not need to respond to all situations, we don’t want to ignore all situations, either. When we do decide to confront, we need to state the problem, inform the offending party of its effect upon you, and request such behavior to cease. Forni then lists special situations such as bullying, rudeness at work, and rudeness with children.
The second half of the book consists of a series of case studies. Starting with those close to us, Forni offers examples of rudeness that we might face along with a solution to how we might confront the behavior. Other chapters deal with rudeness from neighbors, at the workplace, on the road, from service workers, and within digital communications. While these chapters contained many important ideas and examples, it essentially applied the principals laid out in the first half of the book. It’s too bad that Forni is no longer with us. He could have updated this issue with a section on political rudeness.
Another of Forni’s books have been on reading list for some time. This book was brought to me by a colleague, who had found it at a book exchange and brought it for me, knowing of my interest in civility. I was glad to read it and would recommend it. I also look forward to reading more of Forni’s writings.
N. T. Wright, Surprised by Scripture: Engaging Contemporary Issues (New York: HarperOne, 2014), 223 pages including a scripture index.
This is a collection of twelve lectures crafted into independent articles addressing many contemporary issues in the world: the debate over science and religion, the role of women within the church, the environmental crisis, evil, natural disasters, politics, and the future. For those who have some familiarity with Wright’s theology, you will see many of these topics addressed with his recognizable theology of the cross and resurrection ushering in a new era in which we now live. The resurrection is the eighth day of a new creation brought to us by God the Redeemer (paralleling the new creation in Genesis). For Wright, the purpose of salvation is to restore us to stewards of creation (36). Wright is also critical of the adoption of Epicureanism during the Enlightenment, which allowed us to do away with “God.” The result is that we’ve gone back to the old gods of Aphrodite, Mammon, and Mars. In other words, we’ve “got rid of God upstairs so that we can live our own lives the way we want…. And have fallen back into the clutches of forces and energies that are bigger than ourselves… forces we might as well recognize as god” (149-154). Wright also draws some interesting comparisons from his native home in the United Kingdom to the religious situation in American. He points out how the “right” is seen as the savior of religion in American, and how it’s the “left” in Britain that for the past forty years have tried to restore religion to the public life (164). The closing essays looks at the future. While debunking ideas such as the rapture and others end world scenarios popularized by the “Left Behind” series, he leaves his readers with a more hopeful vision of the future. I enjoyed these essays. They left me with a lot to ponder and I recommend the book to others interested in how the Christian faith might inform our lives and world today.
There is much about the South in these poems. Her grandfather’s grandfather walks back from Richmond in the spring of 1865, burying his burdens along the way. A girl becomes a woman in the industrial city of Birmingham, Alabama, with its mile-long coal trains snaking around closed steel mills. While the title poem, “Dear Vulcan,” is set in Birmingham, Davenport explores many places across the region. There are urban and rural settings, places inland and others by the ocean. Hell is seen in a basement pool hall. The August thunderstorm at night “washes summer metallic edge from the air.” There’s the city without women, which keeps reappearing, populated by a boy experiencing the world. Sexuality is explored in parked cars, church basements, and by a married couple drawn to each other in bed after painting the room. In each poem, the reader stumbles upon more pleasant surprises.
While I found much about the South in these poems that I related to, the one missing element was race. Birmingham was not just the Southern Pittsburgh; it was also the city of Bull O’Conner and the 16th Street Baptist Church where four young black girls waiting for their Sunday School class to begin, died in a racist firebombing. Perhaps, one could hope, this could be forgotten and buried or painted over, and we could have a South where race no longer mattered. But that’s my bias, instilled by growing up during the Civil Rights era. But maybe the absence of race (as in women in the poems in cities without women) is that the South often struggles to ignore that which it doesn’t want to face. In my own personal life, I am still amazed that I could live in a city in Virginia for three years, (this was before they segregated schools) and never realize that we (whites) made up only 20% of the population. For the South as a region to come of age, it’ll have to learn to face the unspeakable. In the meantime, children become adults and must experience the world around them which Davenport captures beautifully.
I met Davenport through a writer’s group that I’m in. I was hoping to catch her book release, but it was the day after I had flown back from Austin, Texas, just as the country was shutting down over the fear of COVID-19. As I had been around several hundred of my “best friends” inside two airplanes, I decided it was best if I self-quarantined. I missed the reading at the Book Lady Bookstore but was able to pick up a signed copy of the book thanks to the “Booklady” (who had an employee drop the book off at my office on his way home). How’s that for service!